How iPads are making airports less terrible

An airport-restaurant company will soon have more customer-facing iPads than Apple itself

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What if airports weren’t miserable gauntlets of long lines, heat-lamp food, and ambient anxiety?

OTG Management, a company that runs airport restaurants, has been redesigning airport facilities around the country using Apple devices and custom software to make travel less hellish. Now the company is turning its attention to Newark Liberty International Airport — one of the busiest international hubs in the United States.

Over the next 18 months OTG will install 6,000 iPads on tables, bars, and stations near waiting areas throughout United Airline’s terminal at Newark. Flashing your boarding pass in front of the iPad’s camera pulls up your United profile, with flight information, travel updates, and frequent flier miles. The program, which is opt-in, learns your preferences from your past purchases and recommends things it thinks you might want to buy. If you never buy the orange juice, it will start showing you other options; if you keep buying steak frites, it will show you steak sandwiches. "This is the game changer for personalization," says Albert Lee, OTG’s chief technology officer.

It’s a $120 million project that will bring 55 new restaurants to the facility, some quite high-end for an airport. There will be sushi, bahn mi, steak, dim sum, barbecue, a french brasserie, and a ramen pulling station beneath a metal mesh tower. All of them will use the iPad ordering system.

Beneath the glitzy new hardware, OTG is using iOS to automate its restaurants’ workflows. When you buy something, OTG’s software, called Flo, sends the order directly to an iPad in the kitchen. You pay either with frequent flier miles or with a credit card, swiped at a reader on the table. When the order is up, the kitchen notifies a server through an iPod touch each employee carries. If an order doesn’t get picked up in a timely manner, the system pings the entire staff. "We have accountability every step of the way to make this a much more efficient process," Lee says.

As more elements of restaurant and retail work have been automated, it's created new opportunities for employee monitoring — if software is telling workers what tasks to do, it's easy for it to also tell someone whether those tasks have been done. Managers like it because it provides data on individual performance and creates pressure for employees to pitch customers harder. Of course, it also raises concerns about surveillance of employees.

Lee says the system is a win-win: waiters can serve more tables and get more tips, while customers don’t have to wait to place an order or get a check. "We think this will elevate the customer experience without requiring them to hire more people," Lee says. By automating all the order-taking and bill-delivering, Lee says, they’re allowing waiters to "have one job and one job only: to keep the customer happy." He says that though the system will allow waiters to manage twice as many tables, this doesn’t mean OTG will be hiring fewer workers. Instead, he says, workers will have more time to focus on hospitality. "We don’t believe in full automation," Lee says. "We believe it’s a hybrid of people and technology."

OTG developed its system for airports, where harried and baggage-laden travelers make speed and convenience paramount, but it’s a preview of what’s to come in the quickly growing fast-casual restaurant industry. Panera and Chili’s recently installed tablet menus, and Chipotle, Taco Bell, and other fast-food companies have dedicated apps for ordering pick-up. Across the industry the trend is toward automating everything but the actual cooking of food, making the purchasing process "as frictionless as possible," as Lee says. Next year, OTG will roll out its Flo system commercially for restaurants outside of the airport.

"A funny thing happened along the way," says CEO Rick Blatstein. "We became a technology company." He says OTG is in talks with several fast-casual chains about adopting its system.

OTG started managing airport restaurants in 1996, but the company hit its stride after the introduction of the iPad, growing 70 percent since it first started using the devices in 2011. It now manages over 200 restaurants in 11 airports, including terminals in New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Philadelphia. With the United terminal, the company says it will become the largest deployer of customer-facing iPads in the world, using more iPads than Apple uses in its stores. Newark’s terminal will be the single largest deployment in the world and will bring the company’s total number of iPads to around 13,000. OTG also says passengers spend 43 percent more at its terminals than they do on average.

At Newark, OTG’s goal is to have iPads spread throughout the terminal, not just at restaurants. You can order anything from anywhere in the airport, and someone will deliver it to you. "If you see an iPad in a waiting room, and realize you forgot your headphones, you can sit there and someone will bring you a pair of headphones and a beer while you wait," Lee says.

They’ll have employees distributed throughout the airport who can pick up goods and bring them to you, directed by their iPod touches — for now. Lee says you can "connect the dots" and see the appeal of an Apple Watch for directing employees to the next task.

OTG is also testing iBeacon, Apple’s Bluetooth Low Energy devices that can precisely locate smartphone users in buildings where GPS doesn’t work. Other airports have been experimenting with using iBeacon to send travel information to passengers and help them navigate the terminal. OTG would use them to dispatch employees to deliver goods throughout the airport.

It would turn airports into automated shopping malls, where you sit at your gate and employees deliver your purchases to you. The airport would become like an indoor, small-scale, super-fast version of mobile-enabled commerce in the outside world: Uber for everything, delivered to wherever you’re sitting in a few minutes. If it works, expect to see a lot of the same technologies pop up outside the airport, too.

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